Sports

Football helping prisoners: ‘I watch Match of the Day in my cell religiously’

At a prison in Devon professionals from county rivals Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle are participating in an innovative pilot programme putting football at the centre of rehabilitation

James, one of seven remaining inmates on the programme, with five having been released since the first session. ‘To be able to come here and get some exercise is brilliant,’ he says. Photograph: Ian Tuttle/BPI

There is a fiercely contested drop-ball during a five-a-side kickabout with a difference. Behind the barbed wire and through the giant blue main gate at HMP Exeter, in the gymnasium perched round the back of C wing, where a pair of tracksuit bottoms are drying out of the window of cell 32, a handpicked group of offenders are taking on a team comprising professional footballers from Devon rivals Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle. “Nice and fair,” says Mike Reece, one of five prison officers who specialise in physical education here, as the game restarts.

It is the penultimate session of an empowering eight-week pilot programme devised by Jamie Vittles and Mark Lovell, the heads of the Community Trusts at Exeter and Plymouth, respectively, and funded by the EFL Trust Innovation Fund, with £200,000 split across several projects to celebrate their 10-year anniversary. One million people engage with an EFL club community programme every season.

Over the past couple of months, specially trained staff from the trust have spent time in the classroom, as well as in the sports hall, with the overarching aim of reducing reoffending. The overall reoffending rate is around 30%, while adults who served custodial sentences of less than 12 months had a proven reoffending rate of 64.1%, according to latest figures released by the Ministry of Justice in January.

The trust staff care, have an infectious enthusiasm and make the sessions fun, but there are a number of serious messages, with an underlying emphasis on improving employability, life skills, health and wellbeing, and understanding crime-related behaviours. Nor is it solely about playing football, with mindfulness among the other sessions. For inmates at the category B male prison, where there are just under 500 offenders, being involved in such a programme is regarded as a privilege and is a palpable release from the mundanity of life behind bars.

“You’re in a cell for 20 hours a day and to be able to come over here and have a bit of exercise, it’s brilliant,” says James, one of seven remaining inmates on the programme, with five released since the first session. The majority are big football fans, including Alvin. “I watch Match of the Day in my cell religiously on weekends,” he says. “I want to get into coaching or working at a football club when I get out. My confidence has grown on this programme; I’m now able to deliver certain drills and, hopefully, it gives me a better chance of being able to pursue my dream of coaching in football when I get out.”

As for James, he adds: “You have different categories of prisoners here and it can all fire up in seconds – it can be very scary – but by mixing with the guys, it’s been a different world altogether, no trouble whatsoever. It’s been brilliant and I’m going to miss these guys, I really am. And I know you hear it all the time, but I can honestly say that being in here has taught me a lesson.”

Back row, left to right: Chris Weale of Exeter City, Gary Sawyer of Plymouth Argyle and Troy Brown of Exeter City, with Alvin, Ian, James and Ali. Photograph: Ian Tuttle/BPI

The session culminates with a Q&A after a penalty shootout, with the prison officer Simon Oddie temporarily assuming the role of goalkeeper. “They’re taking it really seriously, they’ve done this before,” Oddie says, laughing, as Gary Sawyer, the Plymouth defender, smashes his spot-kick against the crossbar before Troy Brown and Chris Weale, the Exeter players, take aim. Ian, a reoffender and gym orderly, rifles home his penalty. He believes his role, which involves cleaning equipment in the weights room on a daily basis, has helped him foster a better work ethic. “People have short attention spans in prison and I’m weak mentally, so I’ve really tried to incorporate everything to try and see if it makes me a better person,” Ian says. “It is just trying to change that train of thought, that first emotion because if you are angry you’re probably not making the best decisions. I know for a fact this is my last time in prison. I really believe it, and my sentence doesn’t feel so long now.”

A key part of the programme is the “Through the Gate” aspect, where staff from the community trust can continue to liaise with offenders following their release, when contact with prison staff ends. “That’s when our job really starts,” says Jason Chapman, the Plymouth Community Trust football development officer. “How can we help them make positive decisions? It’s not just a case of: ‘Let’s run the eight-week programme and see you later.’ It’s about being mentors for them to help them stop coming back inside. It’s early days, but we’ve had contact with two released offenders from the programme. Sometimes when they are released, it’s very scary and it’s very different because the world changes. It might be just being there, a support mechanism that they can access.”

Having felt lost following his previous release, Ian adds: “Last time I got out I had no idea, no bank account, I couldn’t sign on [to claim jobseeker’s allowance], I basically had no money and the only option probation gave me was to go to a food bank, and I ended up committing offences again. I’ve got to be realistic, I know that coming from prison, I’m not going to get a top-end job but I’ve got a diploma in waste management and recycling is getting bigger and bigger. I want to put those skills to use and get into a job.”

A walking football festival organised by the prisoners will mark the end of the programme. Community Trust staff, prison officers, offenders and Torbay police will participate in the tournament to celebrate the scheme. “I am sure it will be a real big success,” Chapman says. And it is not just the offenders that have benefited – the scheme is equally rewarding for prison staff. “We joined the job to see stories like this,” Reece says. “We want to see people turn their lives around.”

Talking points

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